In memory of Mapiripán, Colombia

It was twenty years ago: Mapiripán became the scene of a massacre that is today an example of what the war was like in Colombia. Español

Jorge Andrés Osorio
25 July 2017

Mapiripán. Photo: Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica.This article is a product of the partnership between ¡Pacifista! and democracia Abierta. Read the original text here.

From Tuesday July 15 to Sunday July 20, 1997, the population of Maripipán suffered one of the worse episodes in the history of this municipality bordering with Guaviare, in the southern central region of Colombia. Five days in which the heat of violence was felt in every corner of this village in the Meta department. Without mercy, coldly, 100 men belonging to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), dressed in National Army uniforms, cut up and dismembered several bodies with machetes and knives. Some say 27, others 49 people were killed, and there was an unknown number of missing persons who were probably executed and dumped into the Guaviare River, to be carried away into oblivion.

The aim of this 'operation' was to weaken fronts 7 and 44 of the FARC which, since the 1980s, had been responsible for maintaining order in the region. The so-called Buitragueños carried out the preliminary intelligence work in the sector to locate and identify the alleged collaborators of the guerrilla.

"Guerrilla, if you defect, we will spare your life."

Thus, on July 12, three days before the massacre began, several members of the AUC arrived simultaneously at San José de Guaviare airport. This operation was directed by the AUC Commander Salvatore Mancuso. According to several investigations, on Saturday, July 12, two planes, including a Russian troop carrier, landed at the airport with several paramilitaries on board from the Necoclí and Apartadó areas, in the Urabá Antioqueño sub-region, at the confluence of Antioquia, Córdoba and Chocó departments. The ‘paras’ had already warned Mapiripán with graffiti: "Guerrilla, if you defect, we will spare your life."

Although this is not official, it seems that what prompted the arrival of the paramilitaries to Mapiripán was not only the economic and military interest of the place, but the fact that the municipality was considered to be strategic for drug trafficking due to its access and escape routes. It appears that what Mancuso’s men were after was to annihilate FARC members and collaborators who were apparently holding a guerrilla conference with the backing of the settlers in the region. Given the doubts about the actual number of people who were accomplices of the guerrillas, the AUC began to break into several establishments and homes searching for possible suspects.

In the municipality, the supply of electricity for lighting ended daily at 10 pm, but during the days of the massacre, the paramilitaries cut it at 8 pm to help them get on with their manhunt. Several witnesses declared that they heard the cries of people being tortured. More than 100 residents fled from their lands for fear of being attacked. Mapiripán became a desolate village in the middle of the jungle, a new blood stain left by history to mark a tragedy that, in due course, would be part of the memory of the war. Once again, the army, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries were responsible for spreading panic and a sense of loss in a violence-prone land.

The lawyer who was at that time the only remnant of justice, Leonardo Iván Cortes, performed – while being harassed - the mandatory removal and identification process of the corpses. He says there were two attacks and more than 40 corpses as a result of the violence in Mapiripán and at La Cooperativa police station. For doing his job as a judge and for denouncing the negligence of Colonel Hernán Orozco, who did not call in the army immediately to control the situation, Cortes received death threats and was forced into exile to protect his family and save his own life. Obviously, his testimony implicated not only the AUC group, but also the image of the law enforcement forces at that time.

Mapiripán, like many other episodes of the 50-year long Colombian armed conflict, is surrounded by doubts that will linger for ever. 

What about the investigations of what actually happened? Initially, on October 6, 1999, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Group filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) against the Republic of Colombia, in which evidence of the direct and indirect participation of the Colombian National Army in the Mapiripán massacre was supported by 40 points. This was followed by the IACHR sentence of September 15, 2005, on the so-called Mapiripán vs Colombia Massacre case, in which the Commission condemns the Colombian State on the grounds of information provided that indicates the complicity of senior Army commanders with illegal groups. In this sentence, the Colombian State is required to identify the victims and their relatives for the corresponding reparation, and to speedily determine who the perpetrators and the intellectual authors of the massacre were.

After several investigations, the influence of Salvatore Mancuso and Carlos Castaño was confirmed. They both made preparations for the taking over of Mapiripán by the AUC, because they were aware of the importance of that sector for the production of illicit drugs and, moreover, because it was an opportunity to launch an attack on a good number of members and "collaborators" of the guerrilla, which had such an important presence in the eastern plains. In the case of the Army, colonels Hernán Orozco (r) and Lino Sánchez (r) were convicted too. General Jaime Humberto Uscátegui (r) was also sentenced to 37 years for his responsibility and complicity in the arrival of the paramilitaries in the Meta department, for his alleged links with the AUC leaders and for failing to respond at all during the five days of violence in Mapiripán. General Uscátegui, however, was granted parole in May this year, taking advantage of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) framework.

The last 20 years have also been marked by cases of "false victims" of the massacre, which have not only resulted in prison sentences of 8 years and 10 months for the 12 defendants, but have also called into question the prestige of organizations such as the Lawyers' Collective, which was in charge of defending one of them. In all these cases, reparation was granted, but it was later proved that although some of the defendants’ relatives were indeed dead, they had died for reasons which had nothing to do with the massacre.

Mapiripán, like many other episodes of the 50-year long Colombian armed conflict, is surrounded by doubts that will linger for ever. The main ones are whether there were more agents involved and whether the number of casualties actually exceeds 27 or 49. What appears to be clear enough is that the case of this municipality in the Meta department in Colombia was one of the great milestones which evidenced the collaboration between the 'paras' and the law enforcement forces in Colombia during the war.

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